The first section of the article offers what is, on the whole, a fair and balanced presentation of what universalists believe and for that I am grateful. It then moves into critique in part 2. I have no intention of engaging it in depth but I have a few off-the-top-of-my-head reflections.
I said that the first section was “on the whole” fair. My slight hesitation was that I felt that the “brief history of universalism” section underplayed universalism in the early church (as Ilaria Ramelli’s forthcoming Brill volume on apokatastasis will demonstrate) and misrepresented the Orthodox position. On the most generous interpretation it is gross hyperbole to claim that until the 1970s the Orthodox rejected universalism and that since then only two Orthodox theologians (Kallistos Ware and Hilarion Alfeyev) begun to call for a revised view.
McDermott mentions Tom Talbott’s argument against the freewill defence of hell. His objection is as follows:
“Talbott’s argument from God’s love to universal salvation problematically assumes that all people will freely respond positively to God’s love. Why should we accept this assumption?”My problem with this is that Talbott does not assume that all people will freely respond positively to God’s love; he goes to great lengths to build a good case for believing that they will. Now I appreciate that McDermott does not have the space in which to engage with those arguments but it is more honest to simply admit this and to point readers to a place that they can find the issues discussed in more depth. (Jerry Walls, who McDermott cites, is Tom’s best critic on this issue so pointing readers to his work is the way to go.) It is very misleading to claim that Talbott simply assumes that we’ll all choose to embrace God’s love in Christ. To then conclude that “The philosophical . . . underpinnings of universalism do not survive careful scrutiny” simply adds insult to injury. That claim is not a conclusion to McDermott’s scrutiny of the philosophical underpinnings of universalism but is simply an unsupported assertion. To repeat, I am not objecting to McDermott taking the line he does (though I consider it mistaken) but I do object to his complete failure to engage the case he is rejecting.
As an aside, it is worth pointing out that while McDermott’s appeal to the arguments of Jerry Walls will be of help to Arminian evangelicals it will yield no benefit for Calvinists. Calvinists share with Tom Talbott the belief that God can bring it about that all people freely accept the gospel.
2. Divine Attributes
McDermott accuses universalists of abstracting divine attributes from each other (love and justice) and then prioritizing love over all at the expense of justice. Worse still we replace the biblical vision of divine love with a sentimentalist one.
Here I think that McDermott is simply wrong.
First, it is very important to my theological case for universalism that we should NOT pull asunder the divine attributes. We insist that God is holy love; that his love is just and his justice loving. We resist all attempts to pull apart love and justice and that is a key theological reason for rejecting eternal torment views of hell (because they cannot be squared with holy love). (Indeed, for my sins, I am an old-style theist and I believe that God is "simple" — i.e., not composed of parts — and so no division of divine attributes is possible for me.)
Indeed, to my mind the problem with classical evangelicalism is that it is in danger of doing the very thing McDermott accuses universalists of — namely, dividing the divine nature. Traditional evangelical risk setting God’s love and justice up in conflict when they see hell as a manifestation of divine justice but not divine love. We, on the contrary see hell as a manifestation of holy love. Justice? Yes. Wrath? Yes. But also love.
Second, my notion of divine love is most certainly not sentimental. I try in the book to carefully develop an understanding of divine love that is shaped by the biblical narrative, climaxing in Christ. Indeed, I argue that divine love is compatible with eschatological wrath so I am a little perplexed as to how that can be seen as a sentimental view of love.
On the biblical material McDermott simply repeats the traditional approach to eschatological judgment texts (quoting some good authorities en route) and does not discuss the hermeneutic I employ when I read those texts. So what we find in the article is not so much a response to universalist arguments as a simple restatement of the mainstream view. Thus I am not sure how to reply to his arguments other than to point readers to the book so they can decide for themselves whether or not they find my theological hermeneutic helpful.
However, I would make mention of a couple of somewhat frustrating failures to engage my argument.
First, regarding the book of Revelation. I devoted several thousand words making what I still think is a pretty good case for a universalist reading of Revelation. McDermott’s section on Revelation simply ignores that case (perhaps, to be fair to him, for reasons of limitations of space) and presents Revelation as an unqualified problem for universalists.
Second, his response to universalist readings of Philippians 2 is built on the importance of reading it in the light of Isaiah 45. But I argue in my book that it is precisely when one does this that the universalist case is strengthened. Now, I may be mistaken but simply ignoring my arguments and writing as if universalists have not thought to take Isaiah 45 into account is, at very least, misleading.
I do understand that the word count limitations on an article like this are severe and that one cannot consider every argument. Fair enough. However, one should at very least indicate to readers that matters are more complex and that universalist arguments more sophisticated than space permits us to explore. Sure, we may add (to reassure our traditional readers) that universalists are still demonstrably wrong, but we do not serve our readers if we leave them with the impression that universalists have not attempted to engage some of these arguments in some depth. (All that said, I know that I too am sometimes guilty of this very sin and so I will slink off with my head hung low. Preacher heal thyself!)
My main frustration is with the conclusion. Here we discover that universalism is dangerous. Why? Because our new secular context calls for a new evangelization of the West. Agreed. Why does universalism problematize that call? Because “the new evangelization for the conversion of the world will founder if Christians believe that there is no need for conversion.”
Hold on! Who said anything about no need for conversion? Certainly no evangelical universalist (the supposed subject of the article) ever did. And looking at his references I see that McDermott has read a book and two articles in which I argue as clearly as I can that evangelical universalism need NOT undermine mission and evangelism. What does McDermott think of my arguments? I have no idea because he simply ignores them. And what is the empirical basis of his case that universalism is bad news for mission? Twentieth-century liberal Protestants. But he knows that the universalism of such folk is a very different breed of universalism from the kind that I am espousing. This kind of argument is disappointing from someone that I consider to be a good evangelical scholar.
However, these hesitations aside, I do think that the article is helpful, albeit not flawless, as a conservative evangelical orientation to the debate and I am pleased that we are getting the attention of important thinkers and authors like Gerald McDemott (whose book on what evangelicals can learn from world religions I still consider to be very helpful indeed).